Not only does Brave feature Pixar’s first female lead character, but it also centers on her relationship with another important woman in her life – her mother. In most Disney stories and fairy tales in general, mothers are either absent or the source of the heroine’s problems. As a character in the delightful meta-fairy tale Penelope says, “It’s always the mother’s fault.” In most narratives, the heroine, secure in the romantic relationship that’s the main focus of the plot, is finally able to let go of the baggage she inherited from her mother, to dismiss her as someone who’s just doesn’t get it (again, in Penelope, see how the title character finally gives up on her mother for caring too much about looks). In a refreshing change, Brave keeps the focus on strengthening the mother-daughter relationship.
The first section of the film lacks the closely-observed nuance of earlier Pixar entries, which create absorbing worlds out of environments we often don’t see or pay attention to – a child’s playroom, an ant colony. Films like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life are packed with imaginative details that make us wonder, “How did they think of that?” and also, “Of course, that makes perfect sense!” The opening section of Brave is painted with broader strokes, relying on the kind of slapstick humor that usually fills out the edges of other Pixar movies.
*SPOILER ALERT* Once Merida’s misguided spell turns her mother Elinor into a bear, the film takes off. The physical comedy becomes character-based, not just slapstick for its own sake – a lot of gags about the bear trying to behave like an elegant lady. I also liked the details of how Elinor slowly becomes more bear-y: the lumbering walk on all four paws, rather than the absurdly dainty upright gait; the pupils darkening and dilating; seeing Merida as just a human and not her daughter.
Brave brings moving insight to the mother-daughter relationship, a love complicated by unsettling self-identification, awkward communication, and frustrated expectations. Mothers and daughters see themselves in each other – a mother sees her past, her potential, her mistakes; a daughter glimpses her future, the possible outcomes of her choices. Merida’s spell provides a distance that allows her and Elinor to see each other more clearly, not just as reflections of each other. They’re able to recognize each other’s particular strengths and understand each other’s motivations. And how can you not be moved by Elinor’s literal mama bear protectiveness and Merida’s surprisingly fierce protective instincts towards her mother? It’s girl power at its most elemental.
Early on, Merida chafes at the way her mother tries to force her into the prescribed role of proper lady. Over the course of the movie, I would’ve liked to see Merida understand how her mother’s own choices were circumscribed by patriarchal expectations. That may be asking too much, though. As it stands, I’m impressed that the point of Brave isn’t for Merida to find heterosexual romantic love, but to deepen her love for her mother.